In this "Tools of the Trade" series, we highlight important training tools, methods, and protocols to help improve performance and health. This post focuses on the quintessential staple of relative strength, upper-back development, and proper shoulder function: Pull-Ups. (And if you're into this kind of stuff, be sure to check out my other Tools of the Trade posts: The Barbell, Hill Sprints, Weight Belts, and The GHD.)
Pull-ups are nothing new in the strength and conditioning world. They are a widely prescribed movement for many athletes, and their benefits reach far and wide. I'll put it this way: developing the relative strength to complete a pull-up is a goal that every athlete should aim for. Increasing your pull-up strength is not only beneficial for a wide range of sport performance goals, but it is also a great way to maintain healthy shoulder mechanics and increase your resistance to overuse injuries. Pull-ups may look simple, but they offer a lot more to your performance potential than you might think - besides being a cool thing to do shirtless at a bus-stop.
PULL-UPS DEVELOP STRENGTH IN THE LATS
A pretty "duh" statement, but the overarching benefit of having very strong lats is worth noting. Anatomically, the lats are a very unique and large muscle that make up a good portion of your back's musculature. They run from the low back, attach to the ribs and spinal column, and insert on the humerus. Their layout makes them wide and big - and super important in a variety of arm actions. The stronger the lats become, the better they can assist in other movements by acting to help stabilize external rotation in the shoulder. The lats assist in maintaining good shoulder and elbow position on the bench press, and keep the bar tight in pulling movements from the floor (cleans, deads, etc.). Having strong lats is therefore crucial in keeping efficient torso tension when exacting force into a bar using your upper body.
Strong lats are also a needed element in maximal sprinting. Due to their contralateral position to the glutes, the lats help create efficient energy transfer from each stride. As the lead leg swings forward, the opposite arm naturally moves forward as well, placing both the glute and its opposite lat in stretched positions. This stretch from hip to opposite shoulder is an example of the "serape effect," which is prevalent in most every ballistic, swinging, and kicking motions. Strong lats help reduce the amount of lost energy and maintain efficient powerful sprint mechanics.
ENGAGE THE SCAPS
Crucial to improved shoulder health is active and strong scapular contraction. Pulling your shoulder blades back with minimal compensatory movement creates stability through the shoulders and allows the upper body to transmit force efficiently. Not to be confused with simply hanging from the bar, an "active hang" is step one when it comes to performing perfect pull-ups. Your arms should be straight, head neutral, and shoulders pulled to the back of the sockets with your shoulder blades set and retracted. Training this simple hanging scapular retraction helps improve shoulder health, making active hangs a prime injury-prevention movement to finish out your training session.
GET SOME "HANG" TIME
Your overhead position is highly affected by the resting length of the lats, and can become comprimised if your lats are short or tight. Training pull-ups to the full extent through their full range of motion not only strengthen the lats in positions of high tension, but helps maintain good tissue quality in that fully extended position. In fact, allowing yourself some time to get used to just hanging from a bar is beneficial to improving your overhead range of motion, while also allowing some decompression of the spine. The spinal column becomes increasingly compressed over periods of hard training, and allowing gravity to help relieve some of that compression helps you avoid injury. Extensive hanging will also help you develop better grip strength, specifically though the muscles of your hands and fingers. Working your pull-ups in between alternating periods of free hanging is a great way to increase your upper body strength and endurance, and also to relieve some undue tension that may develop through the shoulders, torso, and spine.
Because pull-ups are a top developer of the lats in size, strength, and range of motion, there is no excuse not to make them a priority movement in your strength training program. And this is not gender-specific advice - female athletes will benefit from developing lat strength through pull-ups just as much as, if not more than, male athletes. Remember: there are always ways to scale and modify movements to challenge you - from using weighted chains to increase pull-up difficulty, to using a buddy to help assist you in completing one bodyweight pull-up. Like I said, no excuses. If your pull-up isn't quite there yet, try pairing hanging scapular retractions and lying supine rows to help you develop the strength needed for the initial pull of the pull-up.
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